Imagining life before the Hydra: The Nole Exercise

Posted on: April 30, 2023 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

“The better angel is a man right fair…”

-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 144 (1599)


“So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed”.

-Charles Dickens in Barnaby Rudge, 1841

Imagining life before the Hydra: The Nole1 Exercise

A time before the Hydra?
In a previous blog post [chapter] I sketch out a history of the eight privileging forces represented by the heads of the Hydra. Based on anthropological and archeological evidence, I argue that if one goes back in human history far

The last lines of President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.

enough, back to pre-agricultural times, the Hydra is non existent and social life is largely characterized by a marked lack of socially structured inequalities. All the privileging forces are muted by an egalitarian ethos necessary for the survival of the group. Hunting and gathering life is not perfect, but all evidence indicates that beyond age and gender differentiation, members of the group were treated as individuals, not as socially constructed categories. That social injustices exist in all globalized cultures is a sad fact of modernity, not basic human nature.

Human nature has changed little over these short millennia, but what has changed is the ability of modern culture’s shared norms and values to tamp down the ‘darker angels’ of our nature. In small hunting and gathering bands (typically numbering in the very low hundreds) group cooperation was essential for survival, and norms encouraging selfless group-centered behavior served to bring out the ‘better angels of our nature.’2

If it were possible to reboot humanity, could the small population of humans making up this new start engineer social life so as to permanently keep toxic othering from happening and the Hydra at bay, remaining in it’s embryonic form? That is question to be pondered in “The Nole Exercise.”

A gedanken experiment about starting [humanity] over

You are a team of sociologists asked to consult on an urgent “Relocation Plan”. It has been determined that our planet will be destroyed in about 6 months by a giant meteor. That’s the bad news. The good news is that international scientists have refined space travel technology to the point that we will be able to transport 100 humans to a newly discovered planet dubbed “Nole” which is uncannily similar to earth in terms of its plant and animal life but totally uninhabited by any humanoid ‘intelligent’ species.

Your task is to decide which 100 people should be the colonizers of the Nole world, what limited material items you will add to the cargo hold. Most importantly you are to help engineer, guide, and ultimately predict the development of the culture that will be created by the colonizers.

There are many critical decisions that will have to be made, many of which are technical and have to do with food production, housing, medical care, and so on. Since you are the sociologist on the team, you can leave those decisions to other experts. Your job is to consider what will happen socially and culturally to the 100 people who will colonize ‘Nole.’  Some initial questions to considering include

  • What guiding principles should you use to make all decisions?
  • Who will you bring and what personal or group material items will you prioritize as the sociologist?
  • What types of people will be most appropriate? What will the 100 colonizers look like demographically?
  • What social/psychological factors should you consider?

Some questions you might need to address about the Nole culture include

  • How will they govern themselves?  How will group decisions be made?
  • How will Nole residents deal with procreation, family life, and/or kin relations?
  • Will religion be part of their new culture?
  • How will disputes be handled?
  • What kind of social control mechanisms will be put in place? What norms will emerge?
  • What will gender, ethnicity, race and class issues look like or will they exist at all?
  • Will there be ownership of property?
  • Will there be a currency?
  • What, if any, holidays will be celebrated?
  • Will music, art, or sport play any role?
  • What language(s) will be spoken?
  • What will be the guiding principles of this new start for humanity (their ‘ten commandments’, as it were)?
  • Perhaps most importantly, how will toxic othering of any kind be tamped down? How will the Hydra be kept at bay?

Included in your consultation report must be a prediction of how the colonizers will function socially (1) initially, (2) 100 years out, (3) 500 years out, and (4) 1000 years out. Begin with the assumption that the population will likely grow due to access ample resources allowing for a high birth rate and low death rate. (Perhaps, do the math and make some predictions here.)

You are to consider the fundamental components of human cultures (cultural universals?) and more specifically examine the basic functions of any (1) kinship structure, (2) governing system, and (3) the system of ‘faith’ or guiding philosophy practiced by humans. Using the ‘Nole’ scenario above as your premise, describe what you think will be the kinds of social structures that will emerge among this transplanted culture, especially related to politics and religion. As a functionalist you are aware that ‘everything is connected to everything else’, so discussing other institutions will be helpful or even essential.

What have you learned from sociology so far that informs the input you made as part of the team of sociologists working on this project? [E.g., consider having an emphasis on Freud and the thesis of his book Civilization and Its Discontents.] Go chapter by chapter and give one or two insights from each which to illustrate your understanding of some of their theories and concepts and how these helped you to more deeply understand the sociological nuances of this experiment.

How will this new Nole culture avoid compromising yet another planet by their anthropocentrism? The ‘mentality of exploitation’ is comprised of a series of subtle messages whispered to us by what Daniel Quinn calls “Mother Culture.” Taking these many messages in mind, how will the residents of Nole avoid having the same kinds of messages being created in this new culture? For your answer review your understanding of the ‘mentality of exploitation” and Mother Culture and, as the resident sociologist, describe how these messages should and can be prevented from taking root in Nole’s new culture.

Critical Hydra Theory and the origin of the eight privileging forces
Critical Hydra Theory (CHT) tells us that there are at least eight major privileging forces, driven by toxic othering and exacerbated by late stage capitalism, which dominate all world cultures. We teeter on the brink of climate disaster and clearly have major social justice issues increasingly impacting a majority of the lives on our planet. As the sociological team, how can you act to help the colonizers avoid making the same mistakes which have led humanity to our present state? What new and/or altered norms can be encouraged so as to create a just new world with dignity for all? How can the more destructive aspects of human nature be curbed by this new culture on Nole?

Done thoughtfully, this exercise is intended generate robust discussion by having students explore the essential elements of culture and, more importantly, have them reflect on basic human nature and the classic sociological theme of the tension between ‘self and society’. By applying CHT students will be forced to interrogate the origin of the many privileging forces and attempt to find ways to avoid having the Nole culture repeat these ‘mistakes.’

Can a culture be engineered such that toxic othering does not exist and “the shadows of our own desires” which “stand between us and our better angels” are kept in check by positive social institutions and an ethos of egalitarianism? A question for the ages, that.

1I teach at Elon University. Nole is Elon spelled backwards.

2Though Abraham Lincoln first used the complete phrase ‘the better angels of our nature’, the core sentiment flows from Shakespeare though Dickens to Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seaward who suggested the phrase for Lincoln’s speech. This trope was more recently popularize by public intellectual Steven Pinker in his book by that title.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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